Fantastic, familiar for Sci Fi

Two of cabler's three fantasy miniseries will serve as potential series pilots

Sci Fi has greenlighted a trio of miniseries fantasy projects, including two that will serve as potential series pilots and two based on classic titles.

The network has ordered a retelling of "Alice in Wonderland"; a fresh take on the comic-book hero "The Phantom"; and "Riverworld," from a series of fantasy books by Philip Jose Farmer. All the projects are four-hour movies from prolific production company RHI Entertainment.

"Riverworld," about a photojournalist transported to a mysterious world occupied by everyone who has ever lived on Earth, and "Phantom" will air as backdoor pilots — titles under consideration for a series order contingent on drawing a large enough audience. It's the programming model the network has used with success before, as in the case of "Battlestar Galactica."

"The four-hour format allows us to command large dollars around the world for our shows that puts about ($4 million- $6 million) of production on the screen per hour," said Robert Halmi Jr., president and CEO of RHI entertainment. "It gives the network a chance to try a concept with the same production values, if not better, than you'd get for a series."

The new "Alice" promises to be different than previous incarnations, more than a few of which were produced by RHI. The project is written and directed by Nick Willing, who also did Sci Fi's highly rated "Wizard of Oz" revamp "Tin Man."

"We thought 'Alice' was the perfectly underlying material to tell a classic story with a modern twist," Halmi said. "We'll have new incredible worlds and a more grown-up feel."

Sci Fi Channel executive vp original programming Mark Stern said that weaknesses in the original "Alice" story, which often was more about the passing scenery than character development, allow for more leeway and modernization than most fantasy tales.

"Lewis Carroll was more concerned about politics and satire then telling a mythological story," Stern said. "You're not really engaged with Alice in a proactive and emotionally fulfilling way."

"Phantom" has been adapted a few times without much success, but Halmi said the previous stumbles are a good reason to try again.

"That there hasn't been a successful 'Phantom' leaves the door wide open for us, since nobody has made it their own yet," Halmi said.

Sci Fi appreciates that the crusader doesn't have superpowers and is more in the grounded vein of Iron Man and Batman. "It's not a guy in purple tights," Stern said.

"Riverworld" could have the most series potential if producers pull off the novel's tricky combination mixing a modern protagonist with reborn historical figures.

" 'Riverworld' has a little bit of everybody's' idea of heaven and everybody's hell," Halmi said of the setting.

Characters in the story's world will be portrayed by actors in their 20s, so somebody like Napoleon wouldn't be "a balding man with his hand in his coat."

"Part of the fun of this is the reveal of who each character is," Stern said.

"Alice" is planned for the winter, "Riverworld" and "Phantom" coming next year. RHI also is doing "Meteor" and "The Storm" for NBC in the summer. The Sci Fi backdoor pilots are part of RHI's effort to expand from movies to series programming.

"They're one of the few production companies that are still doing longform and really doing it well," Stern said. "They have an economic model that most of us are mystified about, the way they're able to fund their shows and make a deal very attractive for us."
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